Critical Composition: Immunity, History, Pedagogy (Paine)

Paine, Charles. The Resistant Writer: Rhetoric as Immunity, 1850 to the Present. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999. Print.

Continuing my jaunt through composition history, I take an important turn down critical-studies alley. This is a huuugely important book for me, I think. Glad I read it now, wish I’d read it years ago. (I’m ashamed to say how long it’s been sitting on the comp-rhet history shelf on my bookcase.)

“we may perhaps have more in common with this nineteenth-century side of our heritage than we have previously been willing to recognize. Understanding how our problems are both similar and different from theirs may help us determine the future of our scholarship and teaching practices.” (24)

This book takes up the task of critical history of composition in a way that speaks strongly to some of the things I’ve been working on with critical rhetoric and composition. I hesitate to call his history full-on revisionist, as the figures he is concerned with (Edward T. Channing and A. S. Hill) are complicated without being absolved (especially Hill) of the serious practical and theoretical villainy they purveyed on 19th-century composition-rhetoric. Paine’s history takes on the monolithic narrative of Berlin and offers a ‘slice’ that bears incredibly thoughtful comparison to current trends in composition. The basic idea that informs his analysis is “discourse immunity”—both of these pedagogues saw rhetorical and writing instruction as a way of helping students to critically separate themselves from the increasingly dangerous popular rhetoric (argumentation and especially journalism) of their days. Though published just before the explosion of the blogosphere and well before current diatribes about social networking and the googling and youtubing and wikipediaing of knowledge, many of the arguments he translates from Channing and Hill sound eerily familiar today. We’ve not come too far from Paine’s 1999 (he describes the futility of the “decay of argument” argument late in his book).

His premise, when it all comes down to it, is that the motives and ethics of today’s critical pedagogy (especially as it’s used in composition classrooms) is shockingly similar to the motives and ethics and discourse of these 19th-century villains. We offer students a distance from their own culture, a way to see through and criticize their evil popular culture and its wicked ways. This results in less an opening to student subjectivity than an unquestioned (and largely ineffective) imposition of the teacher’s values—mostly because we subscribe to a (very, very old) resistance model of immunity—that we should teach students rhetoric to keep out the bad. For Aristotle, Paine describes, ““The way to receive public discourse is not to receive it at all, but to see through it, reject it, and correct it.” (7) Rhetoric is prophylactic. For Channing, this is a defense of self-culture in the face of a then-emergent popular discourse of the newspapers, where the (elite, patrician) individual needs to go beyond and above (transcend) the political discourse (infantilizing) thrown to the masses; indeed, the writing rhetor (not the oral rhetor) is tasked with creating calm and logical discourses for a benevolent paternalistic republican, someone who writes truth for active and thoughtful readers apart from the clamoring sensational marketplace of simple facts and crisis. Hill, on the other hand, is largely concerned with the cultural infection of the postwar newspaper, which was purportedly “diminishing the attention span of Americans” (122). Journalism (as he experienced first-hand as a journalist before his Boylston chair days) would no longer be a synthesizing act of the man-of-letters, one who presents reality to the public (including opinions about how that reality should be interpreted), but rather it would become a kind of facts-hungry synthesis-void objective reporting-as-gathering. No stories, just facts. For both of these men, the goal was a rhetorically complete and thus salvific individual: “Well-composed individuals (linguistically and morally healthy individuals) will compose discourse that naturally appeals to their audiences” (141).

In the final two chapters of his text, Paine assesses some difficult problems for an ethical critical pedagogy: the problem of how students change, the problem of how we assume student identities, the problem of a culture of cynicism (like Elbow’s culture of doubting), and an overall difference between what students think argumentation is and what we think it is (know it should be?). The answer for Paine is what he calls “responsible pedagogy”—a critical pedagogy that doesn’t take for granted that students suffer from substandard ideas and instead tries to teach argument as expressing responsibility to an audience with a different view or responsibility to the process of inquiry. This is still, frankly, an imposition of values on the student, but it is one that asks the teacher to respect the positions and histories of her students. The goal is not particular attitude changes, but “in fundamental changes in attitude about what argumentation is and what an arguing self is” (170).

A major part of Paine’s program is a rejection of our “discipline-wide phobia of expressivism” (185). That is, we can support political and public goals without neglecting the personal (Berlin argues that embracing the personal ignores the political).

“Such fear of experessionism may lead to a refusal to acknowledge the importance of personal experience and personal beliefs for students, and thus fail ever to engage them except superficially. And when teachers fail to do this, it is doubtful whether they ever truly persuade anyone.
The categorical rejection of expressionism can lead to a failure to ever engage students meaningfully” (185).

One of the important points he brings up in conclusion comes from Lanham:

“As Richard Lanham observes, this humanistic reflex to automatically reject what society finds important and useful is a recent perversion, having pervaded the humanities for about the last hundred years” (201).

We need to oscillate between intellecualism’s critical distance and the ‘getting things done” motive of our students and our culture (and of our discipline—we still have to teach WRITING, after all). The danger of critical rhetorics and critical pedagogies in the classroom is that 1) we sometimes get too carried away with rhetoric and not enough with composition and 2) we unproblematically assume that our theory and politics is despite their protests and faking, “for their own good.”  Maybe there’s something to changing with the times, and getting over our hangup about the evils of technological and cultural change and just try to deal with them (or EGAD even embrace them).

Finally, his notes (in chapter 2) on “the uses of composition history” will be incredibly useful to me later; I see plenty of connections between this and my own ideas about the uses of critical rhetoric in composition… When I come back to McKerrow, I’ll come back again to Paine.


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